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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Genes For Sale

Air Date: Week of April 27, 2007

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Pat Mooney (Photo: ETC Group)

What if someone took your DNA, cloned it in a lab and then claimed it as their rightful property? Sounds like science fiction but it’s already happened. Rapid advances in biotechnology raise concerns about the ownership of genetic material. Living on Earth re-airs our 1995 award-winning piece “Who Owns Life? Patenting Human Genes” by reporter Bob Carty. Host Jeff Young then follows up with Pat Mooney, a source in the piece. Mooney is the executive director of ETC (Etcetera) Group, a Canadian watchdog organization that tracks international issues of property rights of genetic material.


YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. For the last few weeks, we’ve been marking the sixteenth anniversary of our program by revisiting and updating some of the award-winning stories from our archives. For the final installment of our series, we’re pointing the way back machine to 1994, one of the first reports to highlight concerns about what was then a new practice; claiming ownership of genetic material—in particular, the DNA of human beings.

Reporter Bob Carty, of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, explored the tale of a human cell line from a group of Panamanian Indians, on which the United States Government had taken out a patent. The story raised the fundamental question of “who owns life” and it won an Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio and Television News Directors Association.

We’ll take a listen to that story now, and afterwards we’ll catch up with the Canadian activist who was among the first to draw attention to the practice of patenting human genes. Here’s Bob Carty.


CARTY: In a large basement room in Rockville, Maryland, white vapor hisses from hoses as they charge eight steel tanks with liquid nitrogen. Inside the tanks, at 211 degrees below zero, are tiny glass vials, one and a half million of them. Each vial contains a little piece of life: of bacteria, viruses, fungi, plants, animals, and human beings. This is the American Type Culture Collection, or ATCC. The ATCC is a complex of three buildings with heavy security doors. Inside, the atmosphere is a curious mix between a library and a distribution warehouse. The ATCC does a bit of both. In part it's a cell library, where scientists deposit genetic material as a requirement of the patent process. The ATCC also sells cloned samples of that material to other researchers. The ATCC even has a catalogue on computer disk. That's how a Canadian researcher first came across evidence of genetic prospecting. The researcher was Pat Mooney, the director of a biodiversity research organization called The Rural Advancement Foundation International. One day last summer, Pat Mooney was browsing through the ATCC catalogue on his home computer in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He was hoping to find something about seeds in Asia, but he stumbled on something else.


MOONEY: I was really trying to track something down related to India, so I typed in "India" and was trying to do a word search through it that way. And suddenly on my screen, one of the options that popped up was a Guaymi Indian Woman from Panama. Which was not what I was looking for. As I read through it, I could see that they were saying that they had the human cell line and that for the low, low sum of $127 I could have my own Guaymi Indian Woman from Panama in my own little test tube. I didn't know what to say; I was stunned. To me it was just an incredible thought that you could do something like that.

CARTY: At the time, Pat Mooney didn't know what to do with that odd piece of information. But a couple of weeks later, he was looking at a different computerized database, one that lists applications for patents in Europe. He typed in the word "Guaymi."


MOONEY: And suddenly there she was on the screen. The patent application. The title of the patent was Guaymi Indians from Panama, and to me the most astonishing aspect of all of this was that the assignee for this patent, the one who was applying for the patent, was the Secretary of the Department of Commerce of the United States government. And how is it that someone who is the head of a major government department of the United States, on behalf of the United States, is claiming the human cell line of not just an indigenous person but the citizen of a foreign country?

CARTY: The foreign country was Panama, where in the western rainforests 124,000 Guaymi native people live. It all goes back to the 1980s, when the genetic revolution was taking off. Scientists became interested in aboriginal people because, as isolated populations, they might have a few unique genes or cells. And such cells or genes could make drugs that could be worth billions. Researchers had already discovered something special about the Guaymi. Many of them carried a kind of retrovirus which, at the time, was thought to be associated with the viruses that cause leukemia and AIDS.

In 1990 some American doctors went to the jungles of western Panama. They took blood samples, including one from a 26-year-old Guaymi mother of two. The researchers say they do not know her name. Back in the United States, they took one of the woman's cells and cloned it, duplicated it hundreds of times. That's called a cell line, and the U.S. Department of Commerce put a patent claim on it. One of the researchers was Dr. Jonathan Kaplan from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

KAPLAN: When you work for the government, the government encourages people who develop things like that to apply for a patent. If there is money to be made, the vast majority of it comes right back to the government. There was really no thinking about individual motives or profits.

CARTY: Dr. Kaplan's motives may not have been financial, but the U.S. government clearly considered the Guaymi cells of potential value: a possible windfall for the government itself, or something it could sell to private biotech companies. Meanwhile, Pat Mooney, the Winnipeg researcher, had established contact with leaders of the Guaymi people. They were shocked when he told them they were being used as genetic raw material. From Panama City, I reached Jose Acosta, a Guaymi and a consultant to the Guaymi National Congress.

ACOSTA: (Speaking in Spanish)

TRANSLATOR: When the Spanish arrived in 1492, they took away our gold. When the countries of Latin America became independent, they stole our land. Today, the same thing is happening. They want to take our cells. The exploitation is still going on.

CARTY: What most outraged the Guaymi was that they were never consulted. The researchers claim that they did tell the Guaymi, in general, that they were the subject of medical studies. But there is an obvious pitfall here. Many Guaymi are illiterate. Many don't even speak Spanish. And in their language, there's no word for "genetics." Dr. Jonathan Kaplan concedes that the Guaymi were not given the full picture.

KAPLAN: I think most people wouldn't understand all the details of all the laboratory work that was being done. So in terms of specifically, um, notifying the Guaymi that a patent application was being put forth, I don't believe that was done. But again, mainly because I don't think anyone felt it was really necessary. No one was trying to dishonor them or to take anything from them in any way.

CARTY: But the Guaymi say something was taken from them. They call it theft. They say that if their bodies contain something that can benefit humanity, they are not against sharing it. But they want to have control over the disposition of their genes. And they resent scientists who are willing to spend so much money to preserve the Guaymi and their genetic history in a test tube, while there are so few resources to help the Guaymi survive as a people. Guaymi spokesperson Jose Acosta.

ACOSTA: (Speaking in Spanish)

TRANSLATOR: We are not opposed to sharing with humanity. What we oppose is being exploited where our poverty is not resolved. We have looked into this biotechnology work. To process a sample, the cost per person is $2,300, while the rural salary of a Guaymi is less than $80 a year.

CARTY: The Guaymi sent letters to the U.S. government demanding the patent application be dropped. With the help of Pat Mooney's organization, they took the issue to the United Nations. Then, last November, the U.S. government withdrew its patent application. Officials contend it was not because of the protests. They say there was just not enough commercial interest in the cell line to continue the patent process. That may be true. But it suggests that if the Guaymi woman had something more valuable in her cells, the U.S. government would still be trying to slap a patent on them. The U.S. government still claims ownership of the cell line. It won't be returned to Panama, as the Guaymi have requested. It's still for sale at the American Type Culture Collection.


CARTY: Human material is one of the fastest-growing collections at the ATCC. And this is just one of hundreds of cell libraries around the world. Many are private and restricted. Pat Mooney contends that private biotech companies are engaged in a gold rush for genes that researchers have yet to uncover.

MOONEY: What we've seen in Panama was the beginning of this. Just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve discovered two more examples of patent claims by the U.S. government again, against the lives, the human cell lines of people in Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. This is bio-piracy.

Pat Mooney (Photo: ETC Group)

CARTY: And it's not just an issue for the Third World. A Swedish pharmaceutical company recently secured a patent on a gene from the people of an isolated village in Italy. The company may soon be marketing drugs from the gene to treat heart disease. Meanwhile, native groups in Canada and Australia have joined those in Latin America in calling for a halt to gene prospecting. For the biotechnology companies, that's an alarming prospect. Charles Ludlum is Vice President of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a Washington lobby. Ludlum agrees that gene research should be conducted with prior, informed consent. But he argues that patenting other people's genes and cells is necessary to compensate the biotech industry for its costly investments.

LUDLUM: I don't think there is any ethical question involved with trying to create medicines that help human beings to avoid suffering and to avoid death. I think we need to go wherever medical knowledge can be found; and if we find that there is an aboriginal group that has a special propensity to have a disease, or a special immunity to a disease, then I hope that they would be willing to share that with the rest of the world so that all of us can benefit.

CARTY: But biotechnology critics don't trust the industry. Andrew Kimbrell is the author of The Human Body Shop: The Engineering and Marketing of Life. He argues that to control and regulate gene research and patenting, we need new international treaties. Such treaties might guarantee indigenous groups a share in the commercial returns from their genes. Kimbrell maintains that genes should not be private property, but rather a public heritage for all humanity.

KIMBRELL: I think what we are seeing, increasingly around the world, is an enclosure of the genetic commons; and we're in an extraordinary situation where I think in a very short time, we're going to see all of the 100,000 or more human genes owned by a few companies.


CARTY: At the ATCC cell library in Rockville, Maryland, a worker is counting out tiny glass vials, packaging them up for sale: little pieces of the living world, and ever more frequently, little pieces of ourselves. There are almost no rules to govern this new commerce in the little parts of us. Governments and the international community are just starting to debate the issue. Back in Winnipeg, Pat Mooney insists there is a philosophical, question our society has yet to grapple with.

MOONEY: Patents were meant for sewing machines; now they're being applied to Guaymi people in Panama. We have a new kind of an industry out there. We no longer have a food industry or a pharmaceutical industry or a chemicals industry per se; we really have a life industry. And the thought that someone could have exclusive monopoly control for 17 years over the products, the processes, and in fact even the formula of life, is a scary thought. The fundamental question is who owns life?

CARTY: For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty.

YOUNG: Well, that story from the Living on Earth archives in 1994. We caught up with one of reporter Bob Carty’s sources for that story, Pat Mooney. He’s now the executive director of the Etcetera Group, a Canadian watchdog organization that tracks international issues of property rights surrounding genetic material and nanotechnology. Pat, welcome back to Living on Earth.

MOONEY: Thanks Jeff, nice to be here.

YOUNG: Now you were one of the first people to start raising concerns about these issues. That was more than a decade ago and so much as changed in the intervening time in genetics. Have the rules regarding patenting kept pace with the technology?

MOONEY: Not at all. I think governments are still grappling with- and certainly the medical research community is still grappling with- how to handle these kinds of issues. Meanwhile the patents have continued and moved down in a sense that we’ve moved from just patenting life to patenting the building blocks of life; the basic atoms and molecules that make up the DNA that make up the genes that make up everything else. The technology has certainly rapidly moved ahead. And moved very deeply into indigenous communities around the world, well beyond what we thought back in 1994. And governments are still scratching their heads.

YOUNG: We heard some fairly dire predictions in the story there that the genes of life, for human beings, would be owned by a few companies. Has that come to pass?

MOONEY: Yes it has as best as we know it. And it’s harder to track down the information. I guess one of the areas that has developed more in the last few years is in the ability of companies and patent offices to be obscure about what actually is being done. We no longer clearly see written on the titles of patents Guaymi woman from Panama, Hagahai man from Papua New Guinea. And we see the controls, the visible controls, falling into the hands of a hand full of companies. Of the 24,000 or so genes that we now know are part of our nature about a little bit under 5,000 have clear patents on them already. Of those probably basically three enterprises control about 60 percent of the genes we know to be patented.

YOUNG: You know, um, on the other hand, you know, there’s such promise for good to society from nanotechnology and genetics. You have to have some way to motivate people to do the intensive and expensive research. And that’s what a patent is supposed to do right? So if we don’t have patenting how do we encourage the sort of research that we need, we desire to have done?

MOONEY: Well, you’re right. We do want to encourage innovation. But I think most people who look in this field now would have to agree that patents are really a barrier to innovation. They’re a barrier for entry for new companies coming into the market place because patents are there to blockade a technology, keep everybody out of that field. And the cost of patents, and the litigation around patents is so high, it’s so expensive that only the biggest players can really get into the act to duke it out in the courts to protect their patent interest. What we need to have is an innovation system which certainly rewards creativity, encourages dissemination of that creativity and guarantees that there’s some equitability and access to it as well. And that can be done I think without giving exclusive monopoly to those who weren’t the inventors. They shouldn’t be able to set all the conditions of sale and vary the conditions of sale for their patented products from one customer to another.

YOUNG: Well, this is fascinating. There are so many things here that you’re keeping tabs on. I’m wondering, of all these things that we’ve talked about here is there one that you put at the top of your list of concerns?

MOONEY: Can I give two? There are two very specific claims in this field that we find quite scary. One of them is one that Monsanto has where it’s claimed the species of soybeans. Any biotech work on the crop of soybeans anywhere in the world is a violation of Monsanto’s patent. The idea that you can actually own an entire species of a major crop is simply outrageous.

The second example I give is one by Syngenta, one of the other big company’s based in Switzerland, Syngenta has actually got a claim on how a plant flowers. So it’s actually the strip of DNA that allows a plant to flower. Ant it’s said that this claim applies to 40 different species in the food system including rice and wheat, bananas and so on. So if Syngenta’s patent claim is ever accepted, Syngenta would own the world’s food supply basically all by itself. We think that if the company got the patent they’d be forced to back off. I think there’d be something of a revolution before that patent would be allowed to be implemented. But it shows the failures of the patent system and the inability of governments to address the questions who owns life and who owns nature.

YOUNG: Is that still the right question? That was the question posed in 1994 in that story, Who Owns Life, are we still asking that question?

MOONEY: We’re asking it, but we’re, again, it’s become more fundamental than that. It’s not just life, it is the nature that builds life. In this field of synthetic biology or nano-biotechnology we’re now seeing patent claims again that are on the building blocks of life. And that’s the scariest thing of all because they’re below the radar screen of politicians and policy makers of any kind because they don’t seem to be consequential and then the patent is granted and suddenly you realize that you’ve given away the Garden of Eden.

YOUNG: Pat Mooney still tracking the question “who owns life”- a question that seems to get more complex as time goes on. Thank you very much for joining us.

MOONEY: Thanks for having me.

YOUNG: Well, you can find a link to Pat Mooney’s Etcetera Group and other resources on the question of who owns life at loe dot org.

[MUSIC: Amon Tobin “Straight Psyche” from ‘Foley Room’ (Ninja Tune – 2007)]



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